How Important is ‘Small Talk’ in Global Business

Why do we engage in ‘small talk’ in global business? I have an app on my iphone that tells me the temperature anywhere I wish to go yet, when I meet someone for the first time, it’s often one of the first things we talk about, particularly in Calgary where the weather can change on a dime. In Canadian business, small talk is an essential part of global business and of business communication, in general.

“Nice weather we’re having!”

“How was the traffic getting here?”

“Did you catch last night’s game?”

Even when interviewing for a new position, the human resources advisor will often ask if you found the building without issue. He may even talk a little about the crazy snowfall we had yesterday-or even the Calgary Flames’ loss. This part of the ‘interview’ will last about sixty seconds…or even more…depending on how necessary it is. Small talk is, essentially, benign conversation that puts both parties at ease and is essential to Canadian business communication and global business. Does ‘small talk’ differ around the world? Absolutely! How important is it? Depending on where you are, it can make or break global business negotiations, assist in creating long-lasting relationships, or potentially contribute to losing millions in revenue.

Face-to-face time with a direct report is one of the most contributing factors of an employee’s success in the Canadian workplace. Yet, this can differ globally and given Canada’s increasingly culturally diverse workforce is more integral than ever for strengthening employee engagement.

Allard Martinius, an expatriate from Holland who works for Statoil, a large Norwegian-based oil and gas company, came to Calgary, Alberta on a three year work visa. He managed a diverse team of Canadians, French, Iranians, and Norwegians. He has a very positive perception of Canadians but this wasn’t necessarily the case upon arrival. Martinius says, “in Holland and Norway, we don’t necessarily participate in ‘small talk’ so it took a while for me to understand that ‘small talk’ in Canada wasn’t just for the point of ‘small talk’. It is sincere and honest. There is a global perception of Canadians that Canadians are superficial but we learned it wasn’t true and we appreciated that. We think that’s very positive. I spent a lot of time the first year learning from my own employees and from talking to them. I learned I needed to spend the time with them to understand them, otherwise, I’d be doomed to fail as their manager as I wasn’t setting them up for success”.

According to Andy Molinsky, author of Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, effectiveness can be limited if global dexterity is not adopted. Yet, global dexterity can be a challenging skill to acquire- and can take some time and flexibility- which Martinius demonstrated successfully. Engaging in ‘small talk’ can feel inauthentic if it’s not part of your cultural norm. Managers can feel frustrated and angry when needing to conform to cultural norms that conflict with their own cultural beliefs and values.

Martinius suggests that foreign-trained professionals working in Canada ensure that they integrate with other cultures to learn, absorb and become a part of that culture. He says that though it is much more demanding and takes more energy it is much more rewarding, in the long run, and he has obtained many more enriching experiences as a global leader because of it. Though back in Norway, Martinius looks back on his experiences in Canada as enriching and fulfilling both professionally and personally. Martinius says, “I’ve changed a lot in the last three years-I used to be quite reserved but since being in Canada I’m more open and I think that’s a huge positive”.

Adapting your behavior across cultures can not only be profitable but can be much more enriching as well.



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Tina Varughese